The Two Baskets Theory

By Aadam | Last Updated: September 8th, 2021

I want to answer a question I received recently. It’s something I see a lot in the diet/nutrition space. Here’s the question:

I used to eat real clean and maintained a caloric deficit. For some strange reason I get extreme craves for sweets these days. I give in. Then my mind is like, any way you cheated a lot so why not eat this and that and I eat all the crap. I want to give up these habits and live a healthy lifestyle.


The problem is the way you’re labelling food.

By labelling certain foods as ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ and others as ‘dirty’ and ‘unhealthy’ you’re creating a ‘good’ and ‘bad mentality towards food. And in doing so, you set yourself up for failure from the get-go.

Firstly, the more you restrict things the more your craving for that food increases (what I call The Pink Elephant Problem.)

Secondly, these labels (clean/healthy/good versus dirty/unhealthy/bad) then become attached to your self-worth: When you’re eating foods you’ve deemed ‘good’, you see yourself as a ‘good’, disciplined person who can stick to their diet. And when you eat the foods you’ve deemed ‘bad’, you see yourself as a ‘bad’, undisciplined person who can’t stick to their diet. This is problematic because as people we have an inherent tendency toward the negativity bias:

The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things. In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative.’ 

This is why you eat well for a week but then have one bad day of eating and that one bad day has more of an impact on you than the entire week of eating well. Even though rationally you may know one bad day of eating won’t have that much of an impact on progress, you can’t help but ruminate on that one bad day (or one bad meal). So ‘Fuck it, I’ve ruined my diet, might as well carry on eating this way.’

Now, you feel bad because you ate all these ‘bad’ foods and you’re such a bad person because you can’t stick to a diet. Then you promise yourself that come Monday you’re going to be ‘good’ again and not eat these ‘bad’ foods.
But, alas, a few days in and you’re right back where you started. You’ve now created a negative feedback loop that only solidifies the belief that you’re a ‘bad’, undisciplined person who can’t stick to their diet.

But, the problem isn’t you–it’s the label.

Here’s something that will help: I call it the Two Baskets Theory.

Imagine you have two baskets. One basket is labelled ‘more optimal’ and the other basket is labelled ‘less optimal’.

In the More Optimal basket you have all the foods that we know to be more optimal for your goals because they’re lower in calories, more filling, and provide ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

In the Less Optimal basket you have all the foods that are less optimal for your goals because they’re higher in calories, not as satiating, and provide fewer amounts of all the good stuff. But, they’re great for you mentally because these foods taste great and you enjoy them.

Your goal with the two baskets is simple: you want to keep the More Optimal basket filled up slightly more than, or at the least equal to, the Less Optimal basket.

This works great because you can keep a mental cue of each.

If you went out for lunch and enjoyed a meal that was less optimal, you simply add that meal to your Less Optimal basket and then ensure that your next meal contains foods that you can put into your More Optimal basket.

Example: “Hm, ok, so I had pizza for lunch (because why wouldn’t you eat pizza for lunch?), that’s ok because I’ll just make sure dinner contains lots of veggies and lean proteins.”

Another example: If you’ve been great with your diet during the week and you know you’ll be going out on the weekend, you won’t be stressing out because you know that your More Optimal basket is looking healthy, so you can fit in and enjoy some of the less optimal foods that will fill up your Less Optimal basket.

One final example: If you got a bit loose on the weekend and ate like an asshole, instead of freaking out about it you can just make a note that your Less Optimal basket is kinda full, so for the next week you’ll be paying more attention to filling up your More Optimal basket.

Using the Two Basket Theory as a mental cue works great for a few reasons:

1. You’re no longer viewing foods as good or bad. Rather, as more optimal or less optimal. Words matter, and more/less optimal is less intimidating than good/bad. (This food is bad for me’ versus ‘this food is less optimal for me.’)

2. It’s a great reminder of responsibility. Ok, so you ate poorly for a day–cool, now stop fucking around and get back on track with your diet and goals. (And eat some goddamn veggies.)

3. It reduces the ‘fuck it’-all or nothing–attitude towards your diet. This is the best part of the Two Baskets Theory–if you eat more of the less optimal foods on one day, you can just make up for it by eating more optimal foods the next day. Knowing you can do this, greatly reduces the all or nothing approach to your goals.

Give the Two Basket Theory a go and let me know how you get on.